Tips for studying a foreign language if you have a learning disability
Source: I have dyspraxia. Being bad at picking up new languages is specifically listed as one of the symptoms. I currently speak three languages, and I’m working on others. I’ve also been teaching English as a Foreign Language since 2008.
Caveats: Not every tip will work for everybody, but hopefully all of them will be good for somebody. I also acknowledge that, as a native English speaker, I’ve never been forced to learn another language (even when I was living abroad), and therefore some of these tips come from a place of privilege.
1. Be genuinely interested in your target language. Easier said than done, I know. I tend to do better if I connect the language with something else I’m already interested in. Attempting to learn Spanish because idk maybe it would look good when applying for college didn’t get me far. Trying to learn German because I love musical theatre and there are a lot of amazing German language musicals worked a lot better.
2. Identify which areas of language learning are likely to be rewarding for you, and which ones are likely to be more difficult. It’s okay to focus mostly on spoken or written language. It’s okay if you’re able to understand more than you can speak, or speak more than you can understand at first.
3. Identify why you’re learning the language. Depending on your reasons, you might not need to become proficient in every area. If you’re learning German because you adore German musical theatre and would like to understand it better while also communicating with German theatre fans, perfecting your grammar might not be a top priority. It’s okay to prioritize according to your time, interests, abilities, and situation.
4. There might be things you can’t do in regards to language. I can’t handwrite Chinese characters. It’s not possible for me. That hasn’t prevented me from learning Mandarin.
5. Tests don’t always reflect your language abilities. Most of them focus heavily on spelling and grammar. I’ve had students with low test scores who could carry out animated conversations. I’ve had students who did poorly on speaking exams, but given the time to sit and think could write wonderful stories. I’ve also had students who received a low test score and gave up. That’s the biggest thing not to do.
6. If you have a lot of anxiety in an area of language learning, it might be better to learn about that area from an app than from a person. Learning to read Chinese characters has always been slow going for me, and every teacher I’ve encountered has expected me to pick them up much more quickly than I’m capable of doing. I learn them using Skritter. It took years, but I went from being able to speak fluently and read nothing, to being able to speak fluently and read at a pre-intermediate level.
7. “Fluent” doesn’t mean “perfect”. You can be fluent and still make a lot of mistakes.
8. If you need to learn for school and getting good grades is important to you, a lot of language teachers will be smitten if you occasionally spontaneously use the language with them. Try greeting your teacher in your target language when you meet them in the hallway. Walk up to their desk before class, flash a picture of your cat, and tell them “This is my cat. Do you like her?” in the language you’re studying. Mention that you like an artist or writer from the culture you’re studying. It’s really hard to give a low grade to a student who seems to care.
9. Communicate with your teacher about things you can’t do or struggle to do. If you struggle with numbers in your native language, and your teacher wants to use math problems as a way to practice numbers in your target language, let them know that that doesn’t work for you. In a class with a lot of other people, some of whom that method might work extremely well for, you can’t expect the teacher to give it up entirely. However, it’s fair to expect your teacher not to let it lower your grade.
10. That said, it’s possible to get a low grade and still learn a lot. If you can separate your grades from your learning, do so. It’s also possible to get a low grade because you learned very little, and still pick up the language in a different way later in life. That time you failed Spanish in seventh grade doesn’t define you or your abilities in regards to foreign language acquisition.
11. I bring this up a lot, but it’s possible to book a one-on-one language lessons online for as little as four dollars an hour. These are often a lot more helpful than group language classes, because you can have lessons tailored precisely to your needs. If you want to write only and not speak, a private teacher can arrange that. If your idea of a perfect language class is spending an hour rambling about Pokemon in your target language while somebody corrects your mistakes, that’s doable. Once you figure out what you want and how you learn, there are lots of people out there who would be willing to help you with that, so definitely take advantage of that.
12. The speed at which you learn languages might not be the same as other people. If I compare my Mandarin skills to those of other people who have been learning the language intensively for as long as I have (going on twelve years!), those people <i>are</i> better at it than I am. However, I also have a job that requires me to speak Mandarin every day. It’s something I’m capable of, and which is very rewarding to me. I would have never gotten to where I am if I’d compared myself to others and given up.